Climate change denialism is in the midst of a glacial retreat on the right as natural disasters mount, scientists’ warnings grow more dire and public opinion shifts away from fossil fuel propaganda. The natural question, then, is what does an actual right-wing response to climate change look like?
The answer, Vox’s David Roberts surmised in a June tweet thread, is a seamless transition to fascistic climate nationalism, where the chaos wrought by a warming planet serves as justification for exploiting fossil fuel reserves, building border walls and halting immigration as millions flee increasingly inhospitable countries near the equator.
That may be a decade away. But, on Tuesday, Democrats introduced a joint resolution to declare the climate crisis an emergency. The bill, a largely symbolic gesture to maintain political momentum on climate change, is unlikely to pass. Yet it raises the obvious question: Could such a piece of legislation be co-opted by the right wing?
The authors of the bill say no.
“We don’t have to worry about that,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), one of the resolution’s original sponsors, told HuffPost on Tuesday. “We need to force people to take a stand and spotlight the focus on climate change.”
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) ― who, with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), added progressive star power as sponsors of the resolution ― credited Blumenauer with taking pains “to ensure that doesn’t happen with this resolution.”
Indeed, the five-page bill includes language that specifically bars the federal government from using any “special or extraordinary power” to respond to the climate crisis. Rather, the legislation aims to codify recognition of the cataclysmic threat of taking anything short of radical action to stop burning fossil fuels and curb planet-warming emissions.
“This is a moral imperative. There is no choice,” Sanders said on a call with reporters. “It certainly is a national emergency, and we’ve got to act accordingly.”
But the resolution doesn’t declare a “national emergency.” At least, not in the sense we know it. In February, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency on the border. The move allowed him to divert billions of dollars from the military’s budget to fund the construction of his long-promised border wall without congressional approval.
The White House’s declaration under the 1976 National Emergencies Act drew lawsuits from 20 state attorneys general and the Sierra Club. In May, a judge put an injunction on the spending. A federal court ruled against the Trump administration’s appeal in June. Last week, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the injunction.
The climate resolution, now co-sponsored by Democratic presidential candidates and Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), declares an emergency in name only.
“This resolution is all about formally declaring the depth and breadth of the challenges that climate change will cause—creating need for a ‘massive scale mobilization,’” said Sean Hecht, co-executive director at the University of California, Los Angeles, School of Law’s Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment. “I can see how someone might call those challenges an ‘emergency’ given the need for prompt, massive action.”
In general, it’s better for Congress to define “what is and what is not an emergency,” said Bala Sivaraman, a spokesman for the environmental litigation nonprofit EarthJustice.
“But yes, legally, an emergency does give the president additional powers that ... could be used to justify harsh border policies,” he said.
But an emergency declaration “isn’t necessary to justify particular border measures,” Hecht added. Backing that up are Trump’s repeatedly deployment of thousands of troops to the border over the past year, the administration’s brutal family separation policies and squalid detention centers that scholars now unflinchingly call concentration camps.
“The Trump administration doesn’t seem to think it needs any justification at all for treating people harshly,” said Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. “So I don’t know that this kind of climate declaration would make it easier for them to treat refugees poorly.”